Believe it or not, I’ve actually cooked dinner a few times this month. Like, three! Maybe even four. I don’t know, does a corn tortillas chmeared with refried beans, salsa and toasted with some shredded cheese on top count as dinner? Oh it does? Then definitely, most certainly four. We’re all about the refined eatin’ at the smittenkitchen.
But this dish is a winner. In fact, if I weren’t working on a few humongous projects right now I would have made it again, maybe even twice. It’s the perfect antidote to the simultaneous and conflicting internal dialogue of “I’m craving a big bowl of spaghetti!” and “But it’s bathing suit season!” Also, it’s really nice to find ways to lighten up pasta when it is hot and sticky and borderline-rainy every single day and you’re beginning to believe that you might not get to the beach even once this summer, prepared or not.
The recipe comes from Michael Chiarello and I’d seen him make it a few years ago on his Food Network show, back when they played it more than once a week, on Mondays, at 1 a.m. (Fine, I’m exaggerating, but that was indeed the last time I saw it, and it was DVRed .) It was one of those “here, I cook healthy too” episodes that always make me giggle because they usually so eloquently sum up our American confusion over what “healthy” actually means (see this cake for further evidence).
But I think Chiarello really got the idea, or at least the one I buy into–cutting the starchiness of pasta with something delicious and seasonal, and really balancing out the dish. I had to file the recipe away until I finally broke down and bought a cheap-o mandoline last year, and though I think you could pull this off without one–or at least a julienne peeler–I don’t know, it just sounds like a lot of work if you don’t have the julienning skills of some people.
Beyond that, it’s really simple. You boil some thin spaghetti (or in our case, the thick stuff, but only because we grabbed the wrong size) and in the last minute or two, pop a steamer with an equal weight of julienned zucchini strands over the cooking pot to soften them. Cook some garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, and toss this all together with some reserved pasta water and you’ve got dinner.
I showed off a little, making a quick basil oil (which was awesome, and I cannot stop thinking about it since) but time is of the essence, you could just toss some into the dish. I mean, who would I be to give you a hard time about needing to cut the steps down? I’ve ordered a frisee salad from one block away no less than four times in the last two weeks. It’s difficult to type when you’re hanging your head in shame.
Oh, you wanted to hear about the wedding cake? Hear about it you will! And then some! Oh, and then a little more, until you finally revolt. I just thought we’d break it up a little bit with things that don’t involve butter, eggs and my ongoing panic attack. I can’t thank you all enough for coming out in droves and offering up so much advice. It is making this all so much more manageable. Next episodes: Mango curd and a cake-tasting!
One year ago: Strawberry Chiffon Shortcake [Look at that, I was making another cake! Shocking.]
Zucchini Strand Spaghetti
Adapted from Michael Chiarello
As I’ve mentioned before, Chiarello has wonderful recipes but I can’t resist cutting out a few steps or we’d be using every dish in the apartment. Still, the link is up there to the original if you want to go that route. In the meanwhile, for the rest of us, here’s a simplified version of a really simple, wonderful dish that I could see quickly becoming a summer staple.
Servings: We got a solid four dinner servings out of this
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound whole-wheat dried spaghettini
3/4 pound zucchini
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus a small piece
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.
While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, cut the zucchini with the fine French-fry cutter on a mandoline. If you do not have one, cut by hand into the longest, finest julienne you can manage. Season with salt and pepper. If your zucchini is very finely cut, it does not need to be cooked. Otherwise, place in a colander, suspend over the pasta pot, cover the pot, and steam the zucchini until still slightly crunchy, about 2 minutes.
Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the garlic and saute briefly until light brown. Turn on the exhaust fan and add the red pepper flakes. Quickly mix in the basil and remove from the heat. When the pasta is al dente, drain through a colander, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Pour the pasta into a warm serving bowl; add the zucchini, basil oil (optional, recipe below), the garlic mixture, and 1/2 cup of the cheese. Toss well, adding cooking water as needed to make a smooth sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper, as needed. Grate about 2 tablespoons Parmesan over the top and serve at once.
Basil Oil (or any other herb-flavored olive oil)
Makes 1 1/3 cups
For soft herbs, such as basil, parsley, cilantro or tarragon: Use 4 cups packed leaves to 2 cups pure olive oil.
For woody herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano or lemon verbena: Use 1 cup packed leaves to 2 cups pure olive oil.
In a blender, puree the herbs and oil until completely smooth. Put the mixture in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over moderate heat. Simmer for 45 seconds, then pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl. Don’t press on the mixture, but you can tap the strainer against your hand to get the oil to drip through faster.
[Chirello has steps here to strain again through a coffee filter and let it settle for a few hours but I skipped all this and still had a gorgeous, delicious, unbelievably potent basil oil.]
Note: Fresh herb oils are better to toss into pasta at the end rather than cook with, so the oil keeps its fresh, uncooked taste.